Letters from prison in Armenia: bitterness of a sweet dream
Drawing by Anastasia Logvinenko
[quote] ‘Letters from prison’ is a new JAMnews project. It started with a letter that the publication received from a man serving a life sentence in prison. Yuri Sarkisyan has been in prison for 24 years already. He wrote because he wanted to speak out. He believes that society should hear from people living ‘on the other side’. We agreed to cooperate with him and thus the project was born. Yuri Sarkisyan is also an author of a documentary novel ‘Capital Punishment’, which was published in 2016.[/quote]
This is the sixth letter from Yuri Sarkisyan
If you want to get to know a man, ask him about his dreams: what he wishes for himself, for others and for the universe. Ask for details, because any dream is a spiritual aspiration, and the end-result of the present day oftentimes serves as the fetters of dreams. I always ask this question; I ask my next of kin and strangers: how close they are to achieving their goal, or how far off they are from it. Looking at prosecutors and judges, I wonder the same thing: what are they dreaming about, turning wishes into reality, granting or taking away one’s life?
What about a prisoner? He’s been dreaming about sweet freedom for many years, for decades. He’s been regaining it in his dreams, and losing it upon waking up. I know what lies there in store for me – in every day of my life, in any person, even in my wife. I imagine them avoiding me, shying away from me as if I were a leper, and not fully trusting me. Yeah, here it is – the bitterness of freedom, with our fears and complexes blocking the path towards it. However, those are my problems, and I’m ready to solve them.
Have the ‘deciders of human fate’ ever given it a thought? I don’t know. However, even if they grant me parole or free me forever, they can hardly absolve me of punishment. The same bitterness of an obsessive sweet dream. Punishment is certainly not a prison or others’ judgment, but rather one’s own understanding of what happened and the inevitability of personal responsibility.
Parole hearings have been underway in court for four months already. Every time I look back at the empty courtroom, I can see my own future. There arye neither family nor friends, not any enemies – just those who condemn or justify.
The metal prison bars are preceded by spiritual bars. Even when a person is relatively free, he/she creates the conditions that turn into a bondage nightmare. We often get to the edge of the abyss without even noticing it. And we fall into it quite often too. How to prevent at least one misfortune, to keep yourself and the other from a fatal mistake – the one for which you sometimes have to pay with your own life?
19 March, 1994 was a normal day, one that ended in tragedy. There were three men standing at the crossroads of fate. Each of us had had a choice until the very last moment, and each made it to his own detriment. Life turned out to be the opposite of what I’d expected. For twenty-four years I’ve been clinging to the illusion of a horrible day, realizing the inevitability and irreparability of what happened. What if I hadn’t arranged that meeting? if I hadn’t gone there? if I didn’t have a gun with me? if I hadn’t taken that fatal shot? What if…
However, it all happened. It happened in the most unforeseen and predictable way. From now on, no joy will be complete, reminded of the people who were deprived of it because of you; you won’t be able to look a man in the eye without remembering those whose eyes faded with a single move of one’s hand. The burden of responsibility for the taken lives – that’s forever.
A jail doesn’t change people, it just facilitates the manifestation of existing qualities: the good ones become even better, while the bad ones ‘bury the carrier’. Alas, it’s not a path through the thorns to the stars. Where there is no hope, the path leads to nowhere.
I applied for parole in mid-December 2017. The independent commission denied my application and the case was passed on to court. A total of four court hearings were held, which were postponed again and again for various reasons.
There hasn’t been any precedent for being released on parole for a life-sentence convict in Armenia. So far, everyone has been happy with that, except for those trapped in the situation: the convicts and their families. Every parole applicant hopes for a miracle. And I expect it too.
No one can change those dark facts from my past. A murder can’t be forgotten, justified, forgiven or atoned. I committed it at the age of 26. The court just had no other choice but to condemn the killer to death. So, I died. I died in my own insanity; I died to my family and strangers, to myself as I am today. Justice has triumphed in my case: the earthly court just pronounced the verdict handed down from heavens.
People tend to complain about everything: about heavenly and earthly authorities, about their own surroundings and their inner state. We always feel like we deserve better, and we attribute all the misfortunes to the intrigues of the dark powers. However, as the saying goes: ‘Life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it’.
The members of the independent parole commission, the prosecutors and the prison wardens – all of them are rightly refusing to trust a convict: they are comfortable with that! Everyone sees only one facet of the truth – the killer. Nobody wants to go into details, to take into account the nuances… It’s convenient for them! And they make their choice – the choice to their own and others’ detriment. That’s exactly the same choice as that made by a killer.
If a parole application is denied by the commission, one is entitled to reapply for parole in a year and a half. A negative court ruling has put the alluring horizon for me further away for three more years. What else can possibly happen during this time that hasn’t happened in twenty-four years? Is there any new technology that is going to be used to turn an ordinary person into an angel? And, generally speaking, are there any clear-cut criteria, the compliance with which would guarantee us freedom?
It’s certainly the case when the question is more important than the answer, because it’s not so much about a convict’s personality, but rather about the personal comfort zone of those responsible for his fate.
A ‘man-shackles’ situation drives our mind into a cage of defensive reaction against everything, be it God, people or circumstances. And so you live, constantly justifying yourself; clinging to your rights to human happiness, to those big and small things that can bring you joy, to the emotions and feelings, to your personal opinion; you learn to survive and remain a human being despite everything, you learn to survive in prison.
However, to get accustomed to living on the other side you should first become free. For that very reason I turned to court – to the experience of a judge, capable of considering the issue in a comprehensive manner and adopting an objective decision. The decision that would allow me to regain my freedom, to become a husband, a father, a brother and a friend again; one that will allow me to live among you. I’m 50 years old now. It’s hard to make the right choice, to believe a person who has done so much evil. However, there is no way one can avoid making this choice.